I still remember the day of my citizenship exam. It was a cold Monday in November 2017, at the San Antonio office of U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). I had relentlessly studied the 100 questions about the history and government of the United States that might be asked. I prayed I wouldn’t forget the answers. My heart was pounding and my stomach was in a complete knot.
The USCIS agent asked: “Who is the governor of Texas?” “Abbott,” I responded. The officer sternly asked for the governor’s full name. My mind was running. A few months before, I had tweeted at Abbott when he signed SB 4 on Facebook and proudly boasted about criminalizing immigrants and making it easier for state and local police to work with the feds to detain and deport. But I could not remember his first name. I froze. The irony of my life: Would I fail my citizenship exam because I couldn’t remember the first name of the man who was hurting the immigrant community so much? The same man who is now calling into question my right to vote. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and tried to remember his Twitter handle. It came to me and I blurted, “Greg Abbott!” A few questions later, the USCIS officer said, “I am recommending you for the citizenship oath ceremony.”
Finally, 26 years after I had migrated to the United States and made Austin my home. After all the trials and tribulations as an undocumented immigrant. After being a survivor of domestic violence and getting my green card because of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Justice had prevailed — I would be a U.S. citizen.
In April 2018, my family and friends joined me as I took my citizenship oath. I couldn’t help but cry in joy and excitement as I waved my American flag. A month later, I proudly cast my first vote in the United States — one of the new rights I was most excited about. At the polls, I thought of all the people in the immigrant community who were counting on my vote to ensure we are treated with dignity and respect.
But a couple weeks ago, when I saw Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton proclaim “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” my heart sank. It was clear to me that the Secretary of State’s office hadn’t thoroughly investigated the data it had released on 95,000 potential non-citizen voters. Frightened, I emailed the Travis County Voter Registrar to ask if I was on the list. A couple of days later, I received a call that confirmed my fear — my right to vote was being questioned.
In my head, I went over how this could have happened. In September 2017, I renewed my driver’s license and showed my legal permanent resident card at the DPS office, as required by law. I took my naturalization oath in April and voted in May. I didn’t notify DPS that I had become a U.S. citizen since there is no such requirement. For a moment, I wondered if I had done something wrong. But I refused to allow Secretary of State David Whitley, Paxton or Abbott to doubt me or my right to vote. The registrar’s office said they were still investigating the list and it wasn’t clear what action I needed to take, if any, to remain on the rolls.
I was in shock. All three men had lied, claiming that I and 95,000 other Texans may have committed a serious crime. Abbott called for prosecutions. I was appalled and infuriated. Whitley, Paxton and Abbott trampled all over my citizenship and my right to vote. Their efforts to intimidate me and thousands of other Texans are outrageous, irresponsible and disrespectful to American democracy.
As a Latina, as a woman, as a proud immigrant with an accent, I know my right, duty and responsibility as a U.S. citizen and I do not take it lightly. Winning my right to vote was not a victory just for me or my family, rather it was a victory for my community. I didn’t allow my ex-husband to bully, humiliate and mentally abuse me, and I will not let these bullies intimidate me or prevent me from voting.
When I learned of Whitley’s confirmation hearing in the Texas Senate Nominations Committee last week, I decided to share my story.
Whitley acted as if he had little to no understanding of how the list was compiled and disseminated, who was in it and why, and most importantly, if the list was a legitimate tool to assess whether people are eligible to vote. He refused to admit the data was flawed and even claimed his definition of voter suppression is “irrelevant” when pressed by a senator. When it was my turn to testify, my voice was shaking and my heart pounding with fear and anger. But it was my duty to speak against the voter suppression efforts.
I strongly oppose the confirmation of Whitley because he attempted the systematic oppression of tens of thousands of eligible citizen voters simply because we are foreign-born. Short of the Senate rejecting his nomination, he should resign.
To fellow Texan voters out there who might have received a letter or are dealing with this scandal, I ask you: If voting isn’t that important, why would Whitley, Abbott and Paxton go to such lengths of intimidation to try to take away your right to vote? The choice is clear. Let’s go out there and vote — it is our right.